Structures are prior to people when it comes to moral criticism

By David Hunter

When I first came to the UK I was lucky enough to bump into Bob Brecher giving a talk at a conference and was duly impressed by his approach, so when I was organising a seminar series at the University of Ulster I invited him to be a speaker. One point that I still recall from that excellent talk was his emphasis that structures are morally prior to people in regards to moral criticism. His point was that there is little point complaining about how unethical people are being if they are put in a position where they have little other choice. In other words criticising the system is prior to and more important than criticising the person involved.

I’m presently reminded of this by my present struggles to renew my British Ancestry visa, and thus right to work in this country, where I have met a very vicious and nasty system which seems to prey upon vulnerable people. I’m reminded of this in part because this system has rather caught me out and left me unfortunately unable to present at the ESPMH conference in Germany later this month.

My present visa expires tomorrow, and there are two ways to apply to renew your visa, by post costing £465 (for a one year extension in my case) and taking an unspecified amount of time rumoured to be approximately 6 months (while your passport and pretty much every identifying document you own are in the hands of the immigration service), or via interview costing £665 and taking approximately one week. So obviously I opted for the interview option, how many academics can avoid international travel for six months? However the catch is that you can only book an interview 28 days before your current visa, so 28 days ago I called the hotline to find… that there are no appointments available for the next 30 days. When I asked what I could do about this I was told I would have to either apply via post or try and find an immigration assistance firm which might have pre-booked one of the available slots – although they charge usually another £300…

So here I am having applied via mail, now waiting an indefinite amount of time for the ability to travel.  And in part this is because of a system with perverse incentive structures built in. The immigration service earns considerably more if people apply in person (£200 directly) and even more if they apply through an agency since the agency pays an extra fee to pre-book appointment slots. This sets up though a nasty incentive structure, since it is in the interests of the service to not increase the number of face to face slots, since they earn an extra fee by keeping these the relatively exclusive domain of immigration agencies. And there is a disincentive to improve the efficiency of mail applications (even though there is clearly scope to do this, the face to face meeting cannot speed up the system that much, to change the average from 6 months to 7 days…) because more is earnt through the face to face system.

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